I’m having second thoughts about whether it is indeed better to kill than to be a hypocrite. I didn’t frame the problem in quite these terms on Dec. 27, but that really is the point I was coming to when I posted a rant that day against industrial farming and bad restaurant practices in Victoria. I mentioned that I have eaten animals I knew in the flesh before we killed them, animals that my parents had raised on farms. (They weren’t farmers at all, but sometimes you do what you gotta do to feed the family.) My father (or sometimes my mother?) would kill a chicken with an axe. Anything larger was sent off to a professional butcher, but that didn’t happen too often, because the sheep were almost as useful alive as dead since we used the wool they gave. I said on the 27th that industrial farms, with their emphasis on needless overproduction, turn animal slaughter into something I can’t condone, but that I could imagine killing the occasional beast myself, especially if it were smallish, even if I knew it beforehand. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not just the killing, although that is a substantial stumbling block in the acquisition of any roast victuals. But if I’m going to consider the murderer-or-hypocrite dichotomy in all its ramifications, I have to consider that killing the animal is merely the first step. Could I do the rest? Would I do the rest? Would I want to do that all the time, nearly daily, just to get food on the table? That — along with my squeamish (hypocritical?) insistence on a small animal, since I don’t see myself taking down an ox — is what has me stuck, wondering if I’m back to being a hypocrite.
Anyone who eats meat but who would shrink from killing and taking an animal apart themselves is a hypocrite. You have to be willing to entertain the consequences — and prerequisites — of your appetites. I assumed that by remembering the farm and the chickens and the lambs — and being honest about having eaten the animals without qualms (well, not too many, anyway) — that I was comfortable with putting myself on the side of murder and pitching my tent on the intellectual highground of the anti-hypocrite. Now I think it goes much deeper than just killing and dying.
We’ve got ourselves a master-slave dialectic here. And that gets to the heart of so many other things.
Supermarket cellophane packaging — and all its spin-offs (processed food, tv “dinners,” microwaveable instant “food”) — has made the slave intermediary in our mastery of daily life invisible, transmuted the slave into something else. When someone killed a chicken on the farm, someone had to pluck it; typically, the women did this. Someone had to dunk it in boiling water and laboriously remove the stubborn hard quills that lodged deep in the skin; this was a task often given to the children. Someone had to scoop out the guts and toss them away. Someone had to take the eggs out (sometimes there were eggs still inside) and carefully put them into a bowl (they typically did not yet have shells), and someone had to remove the inner organs carefully; there was always some vile bitter organ that had to be removed very carefully lest it contaminate the other flesh. Someone had to dispose of all the messy feathers and all the messy other stuff, or do something with them. We’re talking about just a simple fowl here; whatever had to be done (by the butcher) to a larger animal is a challenge to the imagination that would quite frankly leave me reaching for the tomatoes and carrots and beans, and forgetting about the steak. The actual labour of making meat palatable for human consumption is so revolting to most people that they don’t bother thinking about it at all.
We tell ourselves that the supermarket has something to do with hygiene, and in best-case scenarios, I guess it does. But doesn’t the supermarket also act as a kind of hypocritical household in which the masters barely noticed or acknowledged the servants as people (just as the meat is not acknowledged as coming from previously alive and sentient beings), so that we can then pretend that our seeming mastery is a “natural” state of affairs, and not something held together by efforts involving oppression? Or, in the absence of servants (I’m between staff myself these days, kof-kof), wasn’t the cook a link in the master-slave relationship that determined our lives in every detail? The cook, who had to slave (literally) over the foodstuffs to turn them into something the family could eat? Before the supermarket, down on the farm, I am the master over the animal, I kill the animal, then I am turned into the slave again as I labour over its preparation. I am chained to these events day in and day out. Every day the question arises, “What’s for dinner?” Down on the farm, the dialectic went round and round and round.
Enter the supermarket with its illusion that you can escape. Lordly, you waltz in and survey the aisles. You deign to approach the meat coolers, you oversee the packaged cuts. Nothing there reminds you of the act of mastery-murder: the meat is pressed flat against the cellophane, with a clarity approaching the digital images that surround you so often. You choose a cut. In this act, you are sometimes reminded that you are not really a sovereign being yourself, because you might stop yourself from buying the tenderloin at nearly $40 per kilo and instead settle on the cheaper cut of beef, or perhaps on a chicken breast, skinless, boneless. You’re not a total lord after all: there is the purse to consider. But because you’ve bought a “finished,” cleaned cut, your time in the kitchen can be minimised. A steak with some vegetables from the freezer is one of the quickest meals to prepare. Add rice or couscous, and you’re done in 15 minutes. Your feet barely touch the ground, your mastery is so superb: you are an angel, albeit an angel of death.
And what’s missing from the relationship is the slave. But stop kidding yourself: there’s always a slave.
If we bring the animals back into this, we see that they are the slaves. And we see that we have paid an army of human slaves to be robotic executioners who daren’t think about the price of their mastery, just as we consumers don’t dare think of ours. We want to believe that mastery doesn’t hurt, or that it only gives us pleasure, and that we never need to see the slaves, and that what we can’t see, can’t hurt us. We tell ourselves that there is no pain, that there are no slaves. But there are always slaves, and there’s always pain.
Money has made the master-slave dialectic seem more abstract, as though it were somehow virtual, not quite real. Once removed, twice removed, digitally removed: hey, if I pay you enough, you won’t scream, will you?
But you can’t pay enough down to keep the slave from eventually revolting, or the master from toppling. Just because you pretend that you’re not in this dialectic — that you’re somehow above it — doesn’t mean you actually are. The invisible slaves, the ones we don’t even see and who we take for granted, are often the most dangerous, and we’ve stocked our food supply with endless variations of the invisible dumb waiter, the invisible downstairs maid, the invisible cook, the invisible farm-hand, the invisible animal. All that invisibility is making itself manifest as endemic obesity, tainted food, a dramatic increase in lymphatic cancers probably due to bovine growth hormones, BSE, waste and pollution on a gargantuan scale, heart disease, early-onset diabetes, industrial farming, and overproduction set on excess. But somehow we still think we’re masters.
I might end up becoming more of a vegetarian not because I don’t want to kill animals, but because my ideology drives me to it. What would Marx make of that, I wonder. Would he say, Hausfrauen Marxismus, dummes Zeug? Or think it’s the logic of the master-slave relationship served on a plate?